An artist who creates joyful and shimmering images of Caribbean culture
On an unusually warm March afternoon in Brooklyn, artist Paul Anthony Smith, dressed in his usual denim work clothes, stands in his studio in front of “Untitled (Duppy Dream in Color too)”, an almost finished, Tightly cropped, black and- white portrait photo of a woman wearing a jeweled crown. Her eyes, emotional and direct, peek through a geometric pattern reminiscent of a mid-century cinder block fence of the genre of her native Jamaica. Smith, 31, made the barrier by picking up the image for hours with a modernized wooden needle tool that he often uses to puncture the surface of his images, a technique that is both reminiscent of the ritual of scarification coming of age once common in the West Africa and the luminous pointillism of Georges Seurat. “Sometimes it takes me a week to finish one,” Smith says of his footage, as he walks to the single window in the workspace, located on the fourth floor of an old, unpretentious factory. in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Smith has rented the small, box-shaped space since moving to New York City in 2014 from Kansas City, Missouri, where he studied ceramics at the Kansas City Art Institute. Pinned to the white walls, and still in progress, are four of his iconic ‘pecks’ – his word for pigment inkjet prints layered with ornate architectural elements and mounted on a museum panel – which will be on display on the 4th April as part of “Junction”, his first solo exhibition with the Jack Shainman Gallery in Manhattan.
[Coming later this spring: the T List newsletter, a weekly roundup of what T Magazine editors are noticing and coveting. Sign up here.]
“The show is inspired by the story of me as a pedestrian at a crossroads where people meet,” he says. “Junction” is an incredible celebration of people, culture, stories and hardships. His work, which often portrays joyful everyday scenes from across the African diaspora, is replete with questions of historical memory, the dislocation of colonialism, and the tension and ecstasy of settling in a foreign land. And while the artist is not physically visible in the images, the new superimposed peckings speak directly to Smith’s own biography, as an immigrant who left his hometown of St. Ann’s Bay in Jamaica when he had nine years old and moved with his family to Miami. The Smiths, in search of opportunities in a new country, are reflected in the predominantly Caribbean subjects, jostling and dragging, which populate the artist’s collages.
Pinned to the wall near the entrance to the studio is “Slightly Rotated to the Rhythm of the Sun,” a work that depicts a beautifully costumed black woman wearing traditional carnival attire. Behind a cinder block enclosure, she makes her legacy peacock in a procession along Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway during the borough’s annual West Indian Day Parade. The fence suggests a sly sense of displacement: “The walls are meant to exclude but also to protect, and in this case, they are used as veils and disguises,” Smith explains, examining the image. “It’s like when you come to a new country, do you become a hybrid of your surroundings? Or do you stay who you are in your culture? When I use these images from the West Indian Day Parade, they are more about the rhythm, the vibe, the culture and the preservation of these spirits. Sitting at a makeshift wooden drawing table in his studio, Smith took T.
How is your day ? How much do you sleep and what is your work schedule?
Recently, I’ve become that person who can’t leave the studio. I am here at different times of the day. I’m just trying to sleep while the sun is down. I usually come here at ten o’clock and leave from nine at night until one or two in the morning. I’ll be here, and sometimes I’m frustrated, like I need to go get a glass of whiskey real quick and come back, or I try to keep the booze in here.
How many hours of creative work do you think you do per day?
It takes a while to get into a rhythm, because I do this repetitive movement and my mind changes so often. I wear a watch because I count how much I work on each section. And if I’m here between 10:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m., I’m probably getting six hours of consecutive work. Some of these works require me a week of work in a row, because I work one by one.
What is the first work of art that you made?
I have sketchbooks in a box there for second and third grade. But I think the first piece of art I ever made was when I found a clay deposit in the river in third grade in Jamaica and made ceramic figurines. These have stayed with me for a long time, and it kind of continues to propel that creative process within me. I think that’s also probably why I studied ceramics.
What is the first work you sold? For how much?
The first work I sold was when I was 14 or 15 years old. I did this painting that I accidentally left on the bus in Miami when I was in high school and never got the painting back, but recreated it and it kinda reminded me of a painting by Edward Hopper. I sold it at the Coconut Grove Art Festival for $ 100 and got $ 50.
When you start a new piece, where do you start? What’s the first step?
I start with a buffet of images that I print and edit, then I usually naturally gravitate to one and stare at it for a while before I start working. I don’t really plan ahead.
How do you know when you are done?
It’s like eating. Once you’re done you’re like, that’s it. You don’t need to overwork it.
How many assistants do you have?
What music do you play when making art?
I listen to jazz, a lot of hip-hop, rap. I still love Nas’ Illmatic. J. Cole’s “Forest Hills Drive” and “Born Sinner” are such great albums. Lately I’ve found myself listening to “The Pizza Show” on YouTube, or just various things about food.
Is there a meal that you repeatedly eat when you work out?
Fried chicken. Or jerk chicken.
When did you first feel comfortable saying you were a professional artist?
After the baccalaureate, where I specialized in ceramics. I felt like there was hope, and I knew it was a journey that could only continue to get stronger, and so I felt comfortable at that point. to say: I am a professional artist.
What is the strangest object in your studio?
I think of the plaster chicken foot wall pieces I made a few years ago, and then there’s a molded cake. I was crazy – went to Costco, bought a cake, went to the butcher in Bushwick where I lived at the time, bought a chicken trotters, pig’s trotters, a tongue cow and a fish head and I cut them all into pieces. I wanted to make this cake that celebrated the fucked up nature of the British Empire, the structures. And so I made this cake, chopped it, froze it, then poured it into alginate and epoxy plastic in my living room. And it is strange. Even though I eat these things, I still think it’s weird.
How often do you talk to other artists?
I regularly speak to a few artists: Yashua Klos, Kambui Olujimi, Cheryl Pope and Roberto Visani.
How did you hear from you?
What do you do when you procrastinate?
I watch YouTube, I watch the flights, I think about leaving.
What are you reading at the moment?
I just bought two books: “Stuart Hall’s Voice” by David Scott and “There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack” by Paul Gilroy: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation. I also listen to an audiobook called “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” by Robert T. Kiyosaki.
What do you usually wear when you work?
I have a bunch of denim shirts and jeans, and some basic shoes. This shirt I’m wearing hell. I left it in London once and had to go back to London to pick it up. It’s from H&M, my jeans are from Levi’s or from Gap. And my hat is from American Apparel.
What does your studio window look like?
I have a window. I took the studio with the fewest windows. It overlooks an alley, the Family Dollar and a granite foundry.
What do you pay for the rent?
What do you buy wholesale?
Arugula and spinach. I love greens. The honest truth is that I love food and therefore I buy things in bulk.
What’s your worst habit?
Suck my teeth.
What are you embarrassing about?
Lots of things – can’t go into detail. I embarrass myself too.
Are you exercising?
I go to the gym twice a week, and it’s mostly to sweat. I get cranky in the cold.
What’s your favorite piece of art from someone else?
One of my favorite works is a painting from the Whitney Collection, titled “Early Sunday Morning” by Edward Hopper.
This interview has been edited and condensed.